When Erica Ramus opened her own brokerage in 2007, she thought she needed franchise backing. She quickly realized that going indie was the right path for her. Here are the crucial lessons she learned along the way.

It’s never been a more interesting or exacting time to be an indie broker. In November, Inman celebrates the indie by narrowing in on what growth tactics are working best and what tech is emerging that offers the best competitive advantage.

In 2007, I opened my own brokerage. I started by buying into a franchise but quickly realized that was the wrong path for me, personally. It just was not a fit. In 2011, I dropped the franchise and went indie, and it quickly became apparent that it was the right choice.

I never even considered going independent right out of the gate. From Day One, I assumed that I needed to join a franchise. I bought the line “systems, tools and training” thinking that I couldn’t create those myself. I had run businesses before (in the magazine industry), and I felt I needed a different skill set to open a real estate brokerage.

I think I just doubted I could do it without a franchise behind me. I was wrong. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things that you might find helpful if you’re considering starting your own brokerage.

1. Focus on vision and values

An entrepreneur in any industry needs to craft their business vision and values before opening their doors. Most business plans include a mission statement, vision statement and company values for a reason: They spell out what the company stands for in detail.

These should not just be platitudes printed in the policy and procedures manual. You need to articulate these to the staff and all agents clearly. They need to be lived and acted on every day, in every decision made. Otherwise, they are meaningless words on a page.

If your vision is fuzzy or your values bend depending on the situation, your people will know this. I worked with a company whose values statement included the words honesty and transparency. The brokerage had these words printed on the office walls, yet management seemed immune to the pledge. They expected staff and agents to adhere to the code, but the company’s owners did not show honesty and transparency with the staff or agents.

2. Follow your instincts

When faced with a decision, your gut reaction usually is correct. Yes, do your homework, and research the options. Do a Ben Franklin analysis (list positives on one side of a grid and negatives on another) to see which choice makes sense.

Ask mentors or trusted advisors for guidance. But at the end of the day, you are the one who has to live with the choice. Your decision might impact others, but as the broker, you ultimately own the decision.

Another reason to have clearly defined visions and values is that they make decision-making easier. Frequently, when you make a move that goes against the grain of everything you stand for, your body rebels and throws up red flags. Migraines, upset stomach and high anxiety levels are signals your body might be telling you to rethink a decision.

3. When confused, freeze

A mentor once told me: When you have a big choice to make and honestly don’t know what to do — do nothing. If you research your options, consult with advisors, map out a Ben Franklin and still don’t know which path to take, sit down in the middle of the road. Don’t choose.

Sometimes, the choice will make itself for you, and sometimes, what was hidden will become apparent.

This advice sounded a bit flaky when I first heard it, as I was talking with a seasoned businessman, and I wanted him to tell me what to do. I wanted to choose, right then. I did take his advice, though, and the right path became clear just a few weeks later.

During that period, I had time to step back and observe the situation while rolling my options around in my brain until I knew what was right.

4. Never stop growing

Over the years, I’ve had several mentors and coaches. Some were official, paid relationships, while many more were unofficial but no less important in my career. Just as our agents need coaching, so do brokers. I’m a broker mastermind group member and a huge believer that you can never have enough education under your belt.

If you are opening an office, find someone to guide you through the process. This is where the franchise system edges out indies, frankly. The franchise will have regional developers or corporate trainers to help you through the opening stage. Franchise manuals address marketing and branding, business planning and accounting. If you have never ran a business before, this is helpful.

Find a broker mentor, or hire a coach, not just for guidance in setting up your office but also during growth phases. Ironically, sometimes it’s during the good times when we find ourselves hitting a wall.

Just as kids have growth spurts, so do companies. You might need help getting over a hurdle — not because things are bad, but because your company is growing quicker than your systems and tools can handle.

5. Networking pays dividends

As an indie, I’ve aligned myself with other indie brokers who are not in my immediate market to bounce ideas off each other and mastermind. Realtor gatherings and national conferences excel in educational opportunities, and they help you build your network of other professionals you can call upon for advice in the future.

I regularly call colleagues in other areas to touch base, find out how their business is doing and see if I can pick up tips that could help my own office operate better. Build a network, and actively work it. When making the calls, be respectful of the other person’s time, and of course, it needs to be a two-way street.

Be genuine when asking about the other broker’s market and trends. Be generous in offering ideas that could help them as well. Be a giver and a connector, and match them to other professionals you know who might be able to help them as well.

6. Don’t try to do it all

Maybe you opened your brokerage because you were a star salesperson and wanted your own office. Perhaps you wanted to build a quirky boutique office or a giant multioffice operation. No matter why you went out on your own, know you can’t do it alone.

Even a one-person office needs a team of professionals backing you — a trustworthy attorney, pencil-sharpening accountant and business banker at the very minimum.

Once you start growing, you’ll need administrative staff, transaction coordinators and perhaps a sales manager. Whether in-office staff or hired contract workers (such as virtual assistants), know that having a team behind you allows you to do what you do best — run the company at the highest level, rather than laboring in the trenches.

I admit I have a problem with this lesson, which is a big issue. If I can do something faster and easier than explaining it, I tend to want to do it myself. Over the years, I’ve realized that training someone to do the tasks I’m not essential for or tasks I don’t like makes the whole operation run more efficiently.

With my magazine publishing background, I used to create all of the ads for the company myself in professional design software. I was very proud of this. Clients regularly complimented me on our marketing and assumed we had a professional designer. I also used to take all of the photos for each listing myself.

Now, I have marketing templates created in Canva and marketing virtual assistants who create listing ads. We have a professional photographer on staff to shoot all of the houses. Can I do it? Yes. But my time is better spent on high-level tasks and not playing with Facebook ads.

7. Systemize everything

You cannot free up your time to do the significant work if you don’t have systems in place. You should have seller and buyer workflows, contract-to-close workflows, and marketing workflows. If you do something every day, it needs a checklist and system. Administrative staff needs to know what to do when you are out of town, so the workflow doesn’t stop.

Systems take time to put together. They also should be reevaluated and changed as necessary. Your office will grow or shrink, and things need to be adjusted. The hardest part is creating the tools in the first place.

Once you have them together, they will save you so much time and worry that you won’t know how you ran the office without them. Don’t wait until they are perfect to implement them. You might run into analysis paralysis.

Create your checklist or templates, roll them out, and adjust as necessary. Then move on to the next one.

8. Grow thick skin

In this business (as in all industries), you are going to hit walls. I opened my office in 2007. Good timing, right? With resolve and many long days, I made it to the other side and through the real estate crash and Great Recession.

During the bad times, you need strength to get through adversity. During the good times, you need thick skin to ward off the naysayers and those who want to knock you back down. Read Grit by Angela Duckworth for inspiration on how the ability to get back up again is more important than other traits in entrepreneurship.

9. Protect personal time

Finally, learn how to protect your personal time. There’s plenty written about work-life balance and how to handle the two. I don’t like the word “balance.” I’m sure people would look at my typical week and think I’m totally out of balance.

I’m a workaholic, and even when I’m vacationing or resting, somehow work edges in — in the business books I read for pleasure, the vacations I plan around conference schedules and writing about real estate for fun.

As the broker, make sure you set aside time blocks that are indeed for your pleasure, and nurturing your family and relationships. Your spouse and family deserve to be a time block on your calendar, even during the busiest of times. Ensure you are there for your agents and staff, and that they know you are never too busy for their questions. But set boundaries and limits that work for you.

Whatever you enjoy, do for you. Hopefully, you love this business and are passionate about real estate. If that’s true, it’s only natural your work-life situation will become more of an ebb and flow than a precarious balancing act.

I’m always eager to hear from other professionals, so if you have other tips, please leave them in the comments below or reach out to me directly. I love hearing your stories and am here to help.

Erica Ramus, MRE, is the broker/owner of RAMUS Real Estate. You can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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